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Zelensky, entering new stage of war, faces political test

As the war grinds on and peace talks continue, the Ukrainian president confronts new challenges

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said March 31 that negotiations with Moscow and its pledge to reduce attacks on Ukrainian cities were just “words.” (Video: Reuters)
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Nearly every day, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, clad in dark green, records a video address to the Ukrainian people, sometimes seated at a desk, other times standing outside in the dark of the night. Lately, he has been warning of difficulties yet to come.

“We all equally want to win — all of us — but there will be battles ahead,” Zelensky said Thursday, with street lamps illuminating Kyiv’s ornate House of Chimeras, part of the government complex, behind him. “We still have a difficult path to travel to get everything we are striving for.”

Among the most challenging paths is that facing Zelensky himself.

The 44-year-old Ukrainian comedian has evolved from a political neophyte, widely doubted among Western leaders and Ukrainian voters in the run-up to the war, into a crisis commander who has cemented his place in the history of Ukrainian nationhood and inspired a will to resist at home and abroad with personal bravery.

Now, as the war grinds on in its sixth week and peace talks between Ukrainian and Russian negotiators continue, Zelensky faces a new set of challenges. He must keep up morale and the will to fight amid battlefield casualties, economic devastation and vast civilian suffering. He must retain the confidence of Western nations that Ukraine can prevail to ensure weapons keep flowing.

But as time goes on he must also figure out what if any sort of political agreement with Moscow to end the war will be acceptable to a Ukrainian population riding high after repelling Russian forces in many areas and feeling inspired to resist by his own actions and words. Compromises may also be more difficult after evidence mounted Sunday of Russian atrocities against Ukrainian civilians following the retreat from the Kyiv region, sparking public revulsion.

“He has relied on intense feelings of nationalism to continue to fight this war, but those are exactly the forces that make it extremely difficult to put this war to an end,” American University political science professor Keith Darden said, noting that it’s unclear how long Ukraine can keep up the fight. “That’s the real dilemma in my mind.”

Zelensky for months has unsuccessfully been seeking a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin to discuss Moscow’s myriad demands. David Arakhamia, head of the Ukrainian delegation to the talks, said Saturday that Kyiv is preparing for a possible meeting between Zelensky and Putin in Turkey.

Voices from the siege of Mariupol

For Zelensky, however, any deal with the Kremlin is politically fraught.

One effect may be to prolong the war if Zelensky doesn’t feel he has the public backing to make the compromises necessary to stop it. Another might be that his extraordinary public support erodes in service of a peace agreement.

Zelensky has been laying the groundwork with Ukrainians to end the country’s constitutionally enshrined quest to enter NATO, noting that the alliance isn’t prepared to accept Kyiv. He has focused efforts instead on securing European Union membership.

The Ukrainian leader has shown flexibility and practicality, defining victory in an interview with the Economist last month as “being able to save as many lives as possible.”

“Our land is important, yes, but ultimately it’s just territory,” he said.

At the same time, however, he pledged to fight Russia “to the last city.”

Zelensky also has warned Ukrainians that the Russians are likely regrouping to focus on attacking a more targeted set of areas, particularly those where Ukrainian forces may face the most difficulty — and has called on Ukrainians to steel themselves for a long conflict.

“Right now everyone is eager to resist — eager if not to win, then to batter Russia as much as possible,” said Mikhail Minakov, a political analyst on Ukraine at the Kennan Institute. “He is in a sort of Catch-22. He tries to find the possible way of staying in this position, remaining charismatic, but at the same time to find a solution.”

Underestimated in Moscow and the West

After playing Ukraine’s president in a popular TV series, Zelensky entered office in 2019 with extraordinary popular support, commanding 73 percent of the vote, as well as a majority for his party in the Ukrainian parliament. He attracted a broad and disparate swath of voters with his populist outsider appeal and promise to end the war in Ukraine’s east.

But by late last year, as Russia amassed troops and materiel on Ukraine’s border, Zelensky’s approval rating had plummeted to about 30 percent. Met with Russian intransigence and Ukrainian political constraints, he failed to end the war. His inexperienced team realized the difficulty of implementing big changes.

Russia’s invasion appeared to indicate the Kremlin also thought little of Zelensky, expecting the former actor to flee Kyiv out of fear for his own life in a manner that would hobble the country’s ability to resist.

Zelensky was equally underestimated among Ukraine’s partner nations in the West, where many officials viewed him as an inexperienced and somewhat unpredictable leader who failed to appreciate the seriousness of the security situation. In the days before the war, Zelensky’s advisers expressed doubts Russia would invade. One senior adviser, reflecting the atmosphere around Zelensky, insisted the Russians were “bluffing” and looking only to intimidate Ukraine.

Russian forces had massed on the border before and backed down. The aide said he saw no reason to believe that this time would be different — and blamed the Biden administration for stoking panic with talk of an invasion. He said that Zelensky’s main responsibility was to avoid a run on banks and capital flight from the country.

But career officials within Ukraine’s national security apparatus agreed with U.S. and British intelligence assessments that Russia was likely to invade. They were frustrated in their own efforts to persuade Zelensky and felt his closest advisers weren’t telling him the hard truth that an invasion looked imminent, said one senior Ukrainian official.

In Putin’s Ukraine quagmire, echoes of Soviet failure in Afghanistan

In mid-January, CIA Director William J. Burns flew to Ukraine and met with Zelensky. According to people familiar with their conversation, Burns shared intelligence that had persuaded U.S. officials about Russia’s intentions. At the time, intelligence also suggested that Russian hit teams might already be in Kyiv, according to officials familiar with the information who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive diplomacy and intelligence.

Zelensky asked if he and his family were personally in danger. The CIA director made clear that the president needed to take his security seriously. Zelensky was skeptical, the Ukrainian officials said. The Zelensky senior adviser said that the information Burns shared sounded dire but, in his opinion, wasn’t specific enough for the Ukrainians to act. U.S. officials have disputed that characterization, noting that by the time Zelensky and Burns met, the Biden administration had already declassified intelligence including satellite photos that showed Russian forces moving into attack formations.

Zelensky didn’t call on his citizens to evacuate or authorize a general mobilization. Cafes and shops in the capital remained open until the very last moment. A former Western intelligence official in Kyiv at the time said he was bewildered that the government wasn’t conducting frequent tests of air raid warning sirens and public drills.

For much of January, as the United States and other NATO allies delivered one warning after another to the Ukrainians of the buildup on their border, Kyiv’s political world was focused on treason accusations against Zelensky’s predecessor, former president Petro Poroshenko.

A hero emerges

After the Russians invaded and tried to make a lightning dash into Kyiv, Zelensky demonstrated far more mettle than politicians in both Russia and the West had expected, refusing to leave the capital even as those intent on killing him tried to enter the city.

“I was positively surprised,” Minakov said. “I myself see the emotion of this charisma. I respect him for what he is doing — and that is an unusual feeling. In Ukraine, we don’t usually respect politicians.”

Even after Zelensky’s display of courage, many around the world still expected him to be killed by Russian invaders in Kyiv or forced to flee the capital within days. But the Ukrainian military performed far better than many expected. The Russians, meanwhile, bungled their assumptions and logistics, stalling the advance on the capital.

With the prospect of finally meeting Putin in person for peace talks, Zelensky is armed with a groundswell of political support, as well as battlefield successes. He faces a test of whether he can parlay that political capital into a lasting peace acceptable among most Ukrainians.

It’s unclear if the moment is right, as Russian forces still appear determined to take more territory in the east, and Ukraine so far remains unwilling to give up any of the land Russia has claimed since Feb. 24.

Serhiy Leshchenko, a former member of Ukraine’s parliament now advising Zelensky’s chief of staff, said despite the desire to continue resisting, there are perhaps less-vocal Ukrainians under siege who want and need an agreement to stop the fighting.

“People living under bombing in Mariupol, Kharkiv and Chernihiv have much less access to social media than people in a safe place,” Leshchenko said, before noting the dilemma facing Zelensky.

“People want to stop the war. People want normal life to come back,” Leshchenko said. “People want to defend Ukraine from the aggressor. People don’t want to lose territory and sovereignty.”